JAKARTA – US President Joe Biden wants to close Guantanamo Bay, but only a day after his inauguration US military prosecutors announced they were bringing alleged 2002 Bali bombing mastermind Riduan Isamuddin to trial at the detention facility where he has been held for the past 14 years.
The timing of the charges suggests the prison’s closure still faces stiff opposition in US military and intelligence circles, largely because the remaining prisoners would fall under civil jurisprudence where evidence obtained under torture would be inadmissible.
The Pentagon approved non-capital charges of conspiracy, murder and terrorism against Isamuddin and two Malaysian accomplices for the Bali bombing, which claimed 202 lives, and an attack on Jakarta’s JW Marriott Hotel in 2003 that killed another 12 people and wounded 150.
“The timing here is obvious, one day after the inauguration,” Marine Corps Major James Valentine, the military attorney appointed to defend Isamuddin, was quoted in media. “This was done in a state of panic before the new administration could get settled.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired general and veteran of the Afghan and Iraq wars, has said in written confirmation testimony that he will follow up on efforts, first by President Barack Obama and now Biden, to shut down the controversial facility.
Obama managed to reduce Guantanamo’s population by using a specially-formed Periodic Review Board to send many detainees back to their home countries. But his efforts to close the prison were overwhelmingly blocked by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Although the government had picked out 13 undisclosed locations where the prisoners would have been held, many congressmen appear to have an irrational fear of allowing what they referred to as “dangerous criminals” into the mainland US.
Born as Ecep Nurjaman and commonly known by his nom de guerre of Hambali, Isamuddin was charged for the first time in June 2017 but the constant delays in bringing him to trial suggest it was merely a mechanism to make his incarceration more palatable to human rights groups.
In late 2018, two FBI agents and two military prosecutors were in Jakarta to gather evidence for the case, and in mid-2019 a defense team visited Kuala Lumpur for the same purpose. But military and civilian judicial authorities continued to wrangle over the nature of the charges.
In April 2019, Pentagon prosecutors refiled the indictment, this time including the crime of conspiracy, in addition to the previous counts of murder, terrorism, attempted murder and destruction of property as a war crime.
All along, the military commissions have been bogged down over legal challenges largely centered on the brutal treatment many of the suspects endured during their previous confinement at Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) black sites.
The leader of Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror group, Isamuddin’s 1,280-day ordeal under “enhanced interrogation techniques” was detailed in the US Senate Select Committee’s 2014 report into the CIA’s secret rendition program.
American and Thai intelligence agents captured the fugitive in August 2003 after a mystery undercover informant discovered he was frequenting a mosque in Thailand’s ancient riverside capital of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok.
He was flown to the US Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia and then to a prison in the Jordanian desert, where he was allegedly waterboarded on numerous occasions during a period when it was deemed justified to extract actionable intelligence.
He was transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006, becoming one of the 780 terrorist suspects who have passed through the Cuba-based US naval station facility since it was opened in 2002 following the September 9, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.
Only 40 remain, but Isamuddin is one of 14 “high value” detainees held in a special section of the prison, including the infamous Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, 56, and four others accused of direct involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks. Their death penalty case has been stuck in the pre-trial phase since their arraignment in May 2012.
The only former detainee to be prosecuted in the US is Ahmed Ghailani, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a New York federal court in 2009 for his role in the 1988 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
He is incarcerated at Colorado’s Florence supermax prison, home to Mexican drug czar Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Yousef and Mohammad Salameh and Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The sole Guantanamo inmate to be convicted so far is Ali a-Bahlul, a 51-year-old Yemeni who is serving a life term there on a sole charge of conspiracy; a raft of other convictions at his 2008 trial was subsequently thrown out on appeal.
While the architect of the 2002 Bali bombing has remained in legal limbo, Indonesia has captured and prosecuted hundreds of Islamic militants, including most recently Zulkarnaen, the last of the Bali planning group to remain on the run.
The 67-year-old former head of JI’s military wing is also suspected of planning the 2003 and 2009 Marriott suicide bombings that claimed 21 lives, and the December 2005 Bali blasts in Kuta and the nearby Jimbaran seafood strip where 23 people died.
It was only in 2008 that Indonesia’s Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit officer Tito Karnavian, later to become national police chief and now home affairs minister, and two senior intelligence officers were permitted to question Isamuddin.
During that Guantanamo encounter, he is said to have made several admissions about his involvement in the al-Qaeda-funded 2000 Christmas bombings, the 2002 Bali carnage and the first of the two Marriott attacks.
In August 2017, the US government review board said Hambali remained “a significant threat to the security of the United States,” citing his role in major terrorist incidents as well as his lack of remorse.
US allegations do not link Isamuddin to the 9/11 attacks, but reference is made to seven Americans among the 159 foreign tourists who died in Bali, the targeting of the US-owned Marriott chain and an abortive plot to bomb the US embassy in Singapore.
He is also accused of planning an attack on the US embassy in Bangkok in 2000 – the same year he and other top militants met in the Thai capital and agreed to hit “soft targets” across Southeast Asia.
Although then vice-president Jusuf Kalla told US national intelligence director Dennis Blair the government wanted Isamuddin returned to Jakarta, it was seen to be more for public consumption than anything else.
Indonesian police and prosecutors have always worried whether his conviction could be guaranteed in an Indonesian trial, given the vagaries of the justice system and the difficulties of gathering enough solid evidence.
Lawyer Valentine said in a 2019 interview it would be “a really big stretch” to implicate his client in the Bali plot, noting that he was never mentioned by a star witness at the trial of three militants executed for carrying out the crime in 2008.
A key witness would still appear to be al-Qaeda-linked Malaysian militant Wan Min bin Wan Mat, 60, who has admitted that Isamuddin gave him the US$30,000 used to finance the Bali bombing during the 2000 strategy meeting in Bangkok.
The former university lecturer was released from prison in 2005 after being held for three years without trial under the Internal Security Act. He now lives, reportedly “under watch,” in Johor in southern Malaysia.
Prosecutors have said in the past that Indonesia’s 2003 Terrorism Law can only be applied to Isamuddin for facilitating the transfer of a further $50,000 from Pakistan to Indonesia to fund the 2003 Marriott bombing.
According to court documents, the money came from Karachi-based al-Qaeda operative Ammar al-Baluchi, 43, another of Guantanamo’s “Top 14” who is facing trial for arranging the financing for 9/11.
Mentored by Ramzi Yousef and known to have acted as a courier for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Kuwait-born computer scientist is also suspected of plotting to crash a plane loaded with explosives into the US consulate in Karachi.